From left: Deidre Handtmann, John Blankendall, Sandy Watkins, Buddine Bullinger and John Maixner
Courtesy Buddine Bullinger/AP
The lives of five brothers and sisters born in North Dakota who were separately adopted at infancy took the twists and turns that 50 years bring. Some moved to different states; some married; some had children. But none of them ever knew the others existed.
Then, the obituary of their biological mother presented a clue. And when they finally met, one brother realized he wasn't so unfamiliar with one of his siblings. John Maixner had been greeted a half a dozen times or so by his sister at their local Walmart in Dickinson, N.D., where she has worked for 23 years.
Buddine Bullinger, 56, knew her biological's mother name but never attempted to contact her. Last January, a Wal-Mart co-worker – the only person she had ever told the name – told Bullinger the local paper had printed the mother's obituary. It mentioned a surviving daughter, Deidre Handtmann.
Bullinger at first resisted contacting Handtmann. But weeks later, Bullinger asked the funeral home to help her reach her sister.
"Feb. 19 was the first time I heard her voice," Handtmann told the Associated Press last week. "I will never forget that day."
They arranged to meet at Handtmann's home in Bismarck, N.D.
"It was unbelievable," Bullinger said. "We are in our 50s. I was so nervous to meet her, and when I opened that door, I didn't know what to say. You don't know what to do. It was so special."
Handtmann had reconnected with her mother 19 years before her passing. She said her mother never mentioned having given other children up for adoption.
The sisters signed release agreements at the adoption agency that handled their cases and asked to find out if they had other siblings.
"Oh, my goodness, they kept calling. 'Oh, a boy. Oh, a girl. Oh, a boy,' " said Handtmann, 50.
One brother lived in Tennessee. One sister lived in California. And the other brother was Maixner, who lived in Dickinson, where he shopped at Bullinger's Wal-Mart.
Handtmann and Maixner met at a local restaurant in June. She showed him a picture of Bullinger, and the "aha moment" happened.
"I about fell over because I'd seen her at the Wal-Mart," said Maixner, 57. "My mouth just dropped open. I just couldn't believe it."
Bullinger, who now trains other employees and works in the back of the store, for years worked as a customer service manager and greeted shoppers. Maixner said she greeted him at least six times in the last nine years since he moved to the town of 18,000 people, located about 60 miles from the Montana border line.
All five siblings reunited for the first time at Handtmann's home in October. John Blankendall, 53, drove from Tennessee and Sandy Watkins, 54, flew in from California.
"It gives me goose bumps," Bullinger said. "So many emotions – you cried and you laughed. It's just wonderful. I haven't quit smiling," she said.
They agreed to take a DNA test. The results showed they are full siblings, meaning they share the same biological father as well.
Maixner's adoptive father passed away shortly before he got a call from the adoption agency. He spent Christmas with Bullinger, her husband and her adoptive parents.
His unlimited-calls cellphone plan came in handy after meeting his siblings.